Tuesday, 1 September 2015


Don't you sometimes get bored with the same hackneyed swear words?

The classic example is the ubiquitous F-word, which has now become just a noise one makes, a kind of dog's bark, almost divorced from its literal meaning, and deriving its real force from how you say it, and in what circumstances. Thus a soft, half-whistled f**k... could express pleasant surprise at the disclosure of something impressive. And a strangled, agonised f**k...! might express one's feelings immediately after stubbing a toe.

How the mighty have fallen. When I was a little child in the 1950s, I never heard f**k being said, even though a generation must have learned to use it daily in the ranks of the armed forces fighting the Second World War, which had, after all, finished only a dozen years previously. There must have been a conspiracy never to swear hard in front of children. It may have been a turning-away from the brutalities of a long and exhausting war, which everyone came away from with memories they would rather forget, bullying sergeant-majors among them. To defend sergeant-majors, think about what a task they faced, turning a shambling assortment of blokes, some of them morons, some of them truculent, very few of them reasonable men keen to pay attention and learn, into a well-disciplined squad of smart-looking soldiers. They had only words and an intimidating manner at their disposal. Naturally they used the most effective words they could. I'm sure that f**k would have been among them, whenever an officer wasn't standing too close by.

If you had heard f**k in every order shouted at you in barracks, or elsewhere, all through the day for six years on end, I'm pretty sure you'd want to blank it all out once demobbed and back in civvy street. And so for a while, at least in the world I knew when young, and most certainly in my parents' house, f**k and similar words were never heard. They weren't on TV or the radio either. Nor could you read the F-word in books or papers. It was like the C-word, cancer, or the D-word, death, or the S-word, sex: utterly taboo in polite circles. Practically a blasphemy.

In fact the strongest swear words Dad used was 'blast'. And he didn't mean 'May God blast me dead', because he had parted company with religion when only a child. It was just an expressive noise he only occasionally uttered, because Dad was assured, clever and successful, good at most things, and mild of speech. He had little need to cover his mistakes with swear words. Mum was less self-assured when young, but had learned in adulthood to be assertive and to defend her opinions firmly. She relied on truth and plain-speaking, and, like Dad, had no need to swear in order to get her meaning across. She was also a relentless champion of high standards. Her strongest swear word, if Wayne and I ever drove her too far, was 'bugger', or rather 'you little bugger'. But that was as rare as a slap on the legs, for both my brother and myself were extraordinarily well-behaved. I certainly did not grow up in a tense home environment ringing with uncouth expletives. Nobody shouted. Nobody was rough or unloving in any way. I'm sure now that 'Not in front of the children' was a maxim my parents took to heart and practised lifelong. But I don't think it was simply a sham, and that they hissed and swore at each other in their intimate moments, when we children were asleep or out of the way.

I learned my knowledge of swear words at school instead. But I never got used to them, mainly because none of them could be spoken at home, and I could never practice their use. Besides, imbued with my parents' gentle-speech ethic, which was also expunged of all sexual references, I'd have been horribly embarrassed to say any of these words. If ever I did try - not at home, at school, say - they sounded stilted and awkward. And saying them would sometimes get me into trouble, myself not knowing all the nuances of usage. So, largely, I avoided all swearing, just as a timid virgin tries to avoid sex, keeping it as a fantasy indulgence for private moments only. I was deep into adulthood before my inexpert household DIY and gardening gave me battered thumbs and painful pricked fingers, and therefore proper, natural reasons to swear in earnest!

But back to swearing in general. I think the time has come to look again at some of the best swearing from days of old. We should mine past centuries for the full-blooded swearing that the prim Victorians frowned upon.

Three examples immediately come to mind: Zounds! Gadzooks! and 'Sblood! Admittedly they seem a bit theatrical, the sort of thing a fiery, swashbuckling character in a seventeenth-century stage play might come out with if insulted. What the Laughing Cavalier might say when not laughing. But so much better than f**k, wouldn't you say?

Zounds literally means 'God's wounds', and is a reference to the puncture marks made as Jesus's hands were nailed to the cross. Gadzooks! literally means 'God's hooks' and is another reference to those crucifixion nails. And 'Sblood! means 'God's blood', dripping down from Jesus's body. But of course a non-religious person can say Zounds! or Gadzooks! or 'Sblood! just the same as anyone devout. How colourful swearing could become!

And, of course, you could introduce new modern variants, such as 'Sphone! ('God's phone').

I'm not sure, though, whether many these old-time swear words could be used by women. I certainly associate most of them with bombast men brandishing swords, in wide-brimmed feathered hats and big clumpy boots - and rather touchy, short-tempered men at that. And not at all with amiable ladies of grace and sensibility. Perhaps not even a close study of play scripts between 1660 and 1700 will furnish us with a long list of female-friendly swear words. For one example, have a look at Colley Cibber's 1696 comedy Love's Last Shift (see https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=wwoOAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA21&dq=love%27s+last+shift&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAGoVChMI1I3t3r3VxwIVBavbCh0hIgWB#v=onepage&q=love's%20last%20shift&f=false), from page 30 of the original printed script, where the ladies enter, and see if you can spot any of the ladies uttering a single swear word in the pages that follow. In contrast to the men, who are much freer with their speech. Mind you, it was a transitional play, shifting from the abandoned licentiousness of the initial Restoration to a style more suitable for the coming sober and moralising era. Mr Cibber was keeping up with the times. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colley_Cibber) That said, the play is about a virtuous lady who has a philandering husband, in which she pretends to be a prostitute for one night - in disguise of course, so that he does not realise it is her. He has a very good time with this 'stranger'. In the morning she reveals who she is, and puts it to him that if, incognito, she delighted him as a 'prostitute', she can just as easily delight him as his wife. He admits that he was wrong to ignore her simply because she was his wife, and henceforth means to be a diligent and faithful husband. A moral tale then. But no good swear words.

However, I remain in favour of more picturesque swearing, and move that the F-word be given a long-overdue RIP.


  1. Shakespeare used 'Sblood' and he really did know how to swear. This bit from Henry IV is my all time favourite:

    'Sblood, you starveling, you elfskin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! You tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase, you vile standing tuck...

    Much more colourful than simply telling someone to f*** off, and SO much more cultured too!

  2. Cannot and will not swear. Swearing has become devalued and long ago I spent time in a factory where whole conversations went on only using your f word but merely altering the intonation! I was considered strange...

    Where are the curses for those of us who have no wish to reference religion or sex?


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